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   Chapter 23 STUMBLINGS

The Emancipated By George Gissing Characters: 23129

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Rolled tightly together, and tied up with string, at the bottom of one of Miriam's trunks lay the plans of that new chapel for which Bartles still waited. Miriam did not like to come upon them, in packing or unpacking; she had covered them with things which probably would not be moved until she was again in England.

But the thought of them could not be so satisfactorily hidden. It lay in a corner of her mind, and many were the new acquisitions heaped upon it; but in spite of herself she frequently burrowed through all those accumulations of travel, and sought the thing beneath. Sometimes the impulse was so harassing, the process so distressful, that she might have been compared to a murderer who haunts the burial-place of his victim, and cannot restrain himself from disturbing the earth.

It was by no methodic inquiry, no deliberate reasoning, that Miriam had set aside her old convictions and ordered her intellectual life on the new scheme. Of those who are destined to pass beyond the bounds of dogma, very few indeed do so by the way of studious investigation. How many of those who abide by inherited faith owe their steadfastness to a convinced understanding? Convictions, in the proper sense of the word, Miriam had never possessed; she accepted what she was taught, without reflecting upon it, and pride subsequently made her stubborn in consistency. The same pride, aided by the ennui of mental faculties just becoming self-conscious, and the desires of a heart for the first time humanly touched, constrained her to turn abruptly from the ideal she had pursued, and with unforeseen energy begin to qualify herself for the assertion of new claims. No barriers of logic stood in her way; it was a simple matter of facing round about. True, she still had to endure the sense of having chosen the wide way instead of that strait one which is authoritatively prescribed. It was a long time before she made any endeavour to justify herself; but the wide way ran through a country that delighted her, and her progress was so notable that self-commendation and the respect of others made her careless of the occasional stings of conscience.

She was able now to review the process of change, and to compare the two ideals. Without the support of a single argument of logical value, she stamped all the beliefs of her childhood as superstition, and marvelled that they had so long held their power over her. Her childhood, indeed, seemed to her to have lasted until she came to Naples; with hot shame she reflected on her speech and behaviour at that time. What did the Spences think of her? How did they speak of her to their friends? What impression did she make upon Mallard? These memories were torture; they explained the mixture of humility and assumption which on certain days made her company disagreeable to Eleanor, and the dark moods which now and then held her in sullen solitude.

But the word "superstition" was no guarantee against the haunting of superstition itself. Miriam was far from being one of the emancipated, however arrogantly she would have met a doubt of her freedom. Just as little as ever had she genuine convictions, capable of supporting her in hours of weakness and unsatisfied longing. Several times of late she had all but brought herself to speak plainly with Eleanor, and ask on what foundation was built that calm life which seemed independent of supernatural belief; but shame always restrained her. It would be the same as confessing that she had not really the liberty to which she pretended. There was, however, an indirect way of approaching the subject, by which her dignity would possibly be rather enhanced than suffer; and this she at length took. After her return from the Palazzo Borghese, she was beset with a confusion of anxious thoughts. The need of confidential or semi-confidential speech with one of her own sex became irresistible. In the evening she found an opportunity of speaking privately with Eleanor.

"I want to ask your opinion about something. It's a question I am obliged to decide now I am going back to England."

Eleanor smiled inquiringly. She was not a little curious to have a glimpse into her cousin's mind just now.

"You remember," pursued Miriam, leaning forward on a table by which she sat, and playing with a twisted piece of paper, "that I once had the silly desire to build a chapel at Bartles."

She reddened in hearing the words upon her own lips-so strange a sound they had after all this time.

"I remember you talked of doing so," replied Eleanor, with her usual quiet good-nature.

"Unfortunately, I did more than talk about it. I made a distinct promise to certain people gravely interested. The promise was registered in a Bartles newspaper. And you know that I went so far as to have my plans made."

"Do you feel bound by this promise, my dear?"

Miriam propped her cheek on one hand, and with the other kept rolling the piece of paper on the table.

"Yes," she answered, "I can't help thinking that I ought to keep my word. How does it strike you, Eleanor?"

"I am not quite clear how you regard the matter. Are you speaking of the promise only as a promise?"

It was no use. Miriam could not tell the truth; she could not confess her position. At once a smile trembled scornfully upon her lips.

"What else could I mean?"

"Then it seems to me that the obligation has passed away with the circumstances that occasioned it."

Miriam kept her eyes on the table, and for a few moments seemed to reflect.

"A promise is a promise, Eleanor."

"So it is. And a fact is a fact. I take it for granted that you are no longer the person who made the promise. I have a faint recollection that when I was about eight years old, I pledged myself, on reaching maturity, to give my nurse the exact half of my worldly possessions. I don't feel the least ashamed of having made such a promise, and just as little of not having kept it."

Miriam smiled, but still had an unconvinced face.

"I was not eight years old," she said, "but about four-and-twenty."

"Then let us put it in this way. Do you still feel a desire to benefit that religious community in Bartles? Would it distress you to think that they shook their heads in mentioning your name?"

"I do feel rather in that way," Miriam admitted slowly.

"But is this enough to justify you in giving them half or more of all you possess? You spoke of pulling down Redbeck House, and building on the site, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"In any case, should you ever live there again?"

"Never."

"You prefer to be with us in London?"

"I think you have been troubled with me quite long enough. Perhaps I might take rooms."

"If you are as willing to share our house as we are to have you with us, there can be no need for you to live alone."

"I can't make up my mind about that, Eleanor. Let us talk only about the chapel just now. Are you sure that other people would see it as you do?"

"Other people of my way of thinking would no doubt think the same-which is a pretty piece of tautology. Edward would be amazed to hear that you have such scruples. It isn't as if you had promised to support a family in dire need, or anything of that kind. The chapel is a superfluity."

"Not to them."

"They have one already."

"But very small and inconvenient."

"Suppose you ask Mr. Mallard for his thoughts on the subject?" said Eleanor, as if at the bidding of a caprice.

"Does Mr. Mallard know that I once had this purpose?"

"I think so," replied the other, with a little hesitation. "You know that there was no kind of reserve about it when you first came to Naples."

"No, of course not. Do you feel as sure of his opinion as of Edward's?"

"I can't say that I do. There's no foreseeing his judgment about anything. As you are such good friends, why not consult him?"

"Our friendship doesn't go so far as that."

"And after all, I don't see what use other people's opinions can be to you," said Eleanor, waiving the point. "It's a matter of sentiment. Strict obligation you see, of course, that there is none whatever. If it would please you to use a large sum of money in this way, you have a perfect right to do so. But, by-the-bye, oughtn't you to make the Bartles people clearly understand who it is that builds their chapel?"

"Surely there is no need of that?"

"I think so. The scruple, in my case, would be far more on this side than on the other."

Miriam did not care to pursue the conversation. The one result of it was that she had an added uncertainty. She had thought that her proposal to fulfil the promise would at least earn the respect which is due to stern conscientiousness; but Eleanor clearly regarded it as matter for the smile one bestows on good-natured folly. Her questions even showed that she was at first in doubt as to the motives which had revived this project-a doubt galling to Miriam, because of its justification. She said, in going away:

"Please to consider that this was in confidence, Eleanor."

Confidence of a barren kind. It was the same now as it had ever been; she had no one with whom she could communicate her secrets, no friend in the nearer sense. On this loneliness she threw the blame of those faults which she painfully recognized in herself-her frequent insincerity, her speeches and silences calculated for effect, her pride based on disingenuousness. If she could but have disclosed her heart in the humility of love and trust, how would its aching have been eased!

For a long time she had been absorbed, or nearly so, in studying and observing; but Mallard's inquiry whether she found this sufficient touched the source whence trouble was again arising for her. Three years ago it did not cost her much to subdue a desire which had hopelessness for its birthright; the revival of this desire now united itself with disquietudes of the maturing intellect, and she looked forward in dread to a continuation of her loneliness. Some change in her life there must be. Sudden hope had in a day or two brought to full growth the causes of unrest which would otherwise have developed slowly.

It seemed to be her fate to live in pretences. As the mistress of Redbeck House, and the light of dissenting piety in Bartles, she knew herself for less than she wished to appear to others; not a hypocrite, indeed, but a pretender to extraordinary zeal, and at the same time a flagrant instance of spiritual pride. Now she was guilty of like simulation directed to a contrary end. In truth neither bond nor free, she could not suffer herself to seem less liberal-minded than those with whom she associated. And yet her soul was weary of untruth. The one need of her life was to taste the happiness of submission to a stronger than herself. Religious devotion is the resource of women in general who suffer thus and are denied the natural solace; but for Miriam it was impossible. Her temperament was not devout, and, however persistent the visitings of uneasy conscience, she had no longer the power of making her old beliefs a reality. The abstract would not avail her; philosophic comforts had as little to say to her as the Churches' creeds. Only by a strong human band could she be raised from her unworthy position and led into the way of sincerity.

She had counted on having another morning with Mallard before Cecily's arrival. Disappointed in this hope, she invented a variety of tormenting reasons for Mallard's behaviour. As there was a chance of his calling at the hotel,

she stayed in all day. But he did not come. The next afternoon Mrs. Lessingham and her companion reached Rome.

It was known that Cecily's health had suffered from her watchings by the sick child, and from her grief at its death; so no one was surprised at finding her rather thin-faced. She had a warm greeting for her friends, and seemed happy to be with them again; but the brightness of the first hour was not sustained. Conversation cost her a perceptible effort; she seldom talked freely of anything, and generally with an unnatural weighing of her words, an artificiality of thought and phrase, which was a great contrast to the spontaneousness of former times. When Eleanor wanted her to speak about herself, she preferred to tell of what she had lately read or heard or seen. That the simple grace of the girl should be modified in the wife and mother was of course to be expected, but Cecily looked older than she ought to have done, and occasionally bore herself with a little too much consciousness, as if she felt the observation even of intimate friends something of a restraint.

Miriam, when she had made inquiries about her brother's health, took little part in the general conversation, and it was not till late in the evening that she spoke with Cecily in private.

"May I come and sit with you for a few minutes?" Cecily asked, when Miriam was going to her bedroom.

They were far less at ease with each other than when their differences of opinion were a recognized obstacle to intimacy. Cecily was uncertain how far her sister-in-law had progressed from the old standpoint, and she saw in her even an increase of the wonted reticence. On her own side there was no longer a warm impulse of sisterly affection. But her first words, when they were alone together, sounded like an appeal for tender confidence.

"I do so wish you had seen my poor little boy!"

"I wish I had been nearer," Miriam answered kindly. "It is very sad that you have suffered such a loss."

Cecily spoke of the child, and with simple feeling, which made her more like herself than hitherto.

"When a little thing dies at that age," she said presently, "it is only the mother's grief. The father cannot have much interest in so young a child."

"But Reuben wrote very affectionately of Clarence in one letter I had from him."

"Yes, but it is natural that he shouldn't feel the loss as I do. A man has his business in life; a woman, if she needn't work for bread, has nothing to do but be glad or sorry for what happens in her home."

"I shouldn't have thought you took that view of a woman's life," said Miriam, after a silence, regarding the other with uncertain eyes.

"'Views' have become rather a weariness to me," answered Cecily, smiling sadly. "Sorrow is sorrow to me as much as to the woman who never questioned one of society's beliefs; it makes me despondent. No doubt I ought to find all sorts of superior consolations. But I don't and can't. A woman's natural lot is to care for her husband and bring up children. Do you believe, Miriam, that anything will ever take the place of these occupations?"

"I suppose not. But time will help you, and your interests will come back again."

"True. On the other hand, it is equally true that I am now seeing how little those interests really amount to. They are pastime, if you like, but nothing more. Some women do serious work, however; I wish I could be one of them. To them, perhaps, 'views' are something real and helpful. But never mind myself; you were glad to hear that Reuben is working on?"

"Very glad."

Cecily waited a little; then, watching the other's face, asked:

"You know what he is writing?"

"In a general way," Miriam answered, averting her eyes. "Do you think he has made a wise choice?"

"I dare say it is the subject on which he will write best," Cecily answered, smiling.

"I doubt whether he understands it sufficiently," said Miriam, with balanced tone. "He has really nothing but prejudice to go upon. There will be a great deal of misrepresentation in his book-if he ever finishes it."

"Yes, I am afraid that is true. But it may be useful, after all. Here and there he will hit the mark."

Cecily was tentative. She saw Miriam's brows work uneasily.

"Perhaps so," was the reply. "But I know quite well that such a book would have been no use to me when I stood in need of the kind of help you mean."

"To be sure; it is for people who have already helped themselves," said Cecily, in a jesting tone.

Miriam turned to another subject, and very soon said good night. Reflecting on the conversation, she was annoyed with herself for having been led by her familiar weakness to admit that she had changed her way of thinking. Certainly she had no intention of disguising the fact, but this explicit confession had seemed to make her Cecily's inferior; she was like a school-girl claiming recognition of progress.

The next morning Mallard called. He came into a room where Mrs. Lessingham, Eleanor, and Miriam were waiting for Cecily to join them, that all might go out together. Miriam had never seen him behave with such ease of manner. He was in good spirits, and talked with a facility most unusual in him. Mrs. Lessingham said she would go and see why Cecily delayed; Eleanor also made an excuse for leaving the room. But Miriam remained, standing by the window and looking into the street; Mallard stood near her, but did not speak. The silence lasted for a minute or two; then Cecily entered, and at once the artist greeted her with warm friendliness. Miriam had turned, but did not regard the pair directly; her eye caught their reflection in a mirror, and she watched them closely without seeming to do so. Cecily had made her appearance with a face of pleased anticipation; she looked for the first moment with much earnestness at her old friend, and when she spoke to him it was with the unmistakable accent of emotion. Mallard was gentle, reverent; he held her hand a little longer than was necessary, but his eyes quickly fell from her countenance.

"Your husband is well?" he asked in a full, steady voice.

They seated themselves, and Miriam again turned to the window. Cecily's voice made a jarring upon her ear; it was so much sweeter and more youthful, so much more like the voice of Cecily Doran, than when it addressed other people. Mallard, too, continued in a soft, pleasant tone, quite different from his usual speech; Miriam thrilled with irritation as she heard him.

"They have told me of the picture you painted at Paestum. When may Mrs. Lessingham and I come and see it?"

"I haven't a place in which I could receive you. I'll bring the thing here, whenever you like."

Miriam moved. She wished to leave the room, but could not decide herself to do so. In the same moment Mallard glanced round at her. She interpreted his look as one of impatience, and at once said to Cecily:

"I think I'll change my mind, and write some letters this morning. Perhaps you could persuade Mr. Mallard to take my place for the drive."

"Oh!" exclaimed Cecily, with a laugh, "I'm quite sure Mr. Mallard has no desire to go to the English cemetery." She added in explanation, to Mallard himself, "My aunt has promised to visit a certain grave, and copy the inscription for a friend at Florence."

Whilst she was speaking, Mrs. Lessingham and Eleanor returned. Mallard, rising, looked at Miriam with a singular smile; then talked a little longer, and, with a promise to come again, soon took his leave.

"Don't disappoint us," said Cecily to Miriam, in the most natural tone.

"It was only that I felt we were making Mr. Mallard's visit very short," answered Miriam, constrained by shame.

"He detests ceremony. You couldn't please him better than by saying, 'Please don't hinder me now, but come when I'm at leisure.'"

It was peculiarly distasteful to Miriam to have information concerning the artist's character offered her by Cecily, in spite of the playful tone. During the drive, she persuaded herself that Cecily's improved spirits were entirely due to the conversation with Mallard, and this stirred fresh resentment in her. She had foreseen the effect upon her own feelings of the meeting which had just come about; it was extreme folly, but she could not control it.

The next day Mallard brought his picture again to the hotel, and spent nearly an hour with Mrs. Lessingham and Cecily in their sitting-room. Miriam heard of this on her return from a. solitary walk, and heard, moreover, that Mallard had been showing his friends a number of little drawings which he had never offered to let her or the Spences see. In the afternoon she again went out by herself, and, whilst looking into a shop-window in the Piazza di Spagna, became aware of Mallard's face reflected in the glass. She drew aside before looking round at him.

"That is a clever piece of work," he said, indicating a water-colour in the window, and speaking as if they had already been in conversation. He had not even made the hat-salute.

"I thought so," Miriam replied, very coldly, looking at something else.

"Are you going home, Mrs. Baske?"

"Yes. I only came out to buy something."

"I am just going to see the studio of an Italian to whom Mr. Seaborne introduced me yesterday. It's in the Quattro-Fontane. Would it interest you?"

"Thank you, Mr. Mallard; I had rather not go this afternoon."

He accepted the refusal with a courteous smile, raised his hat in approved manner, and turned to cross the Piazza as she went her way.

This evening they had a visit from Seaborne, who met Mrs. Lessingham and Cecily for the first time. These ladies were predisposed to like him, and before he left they did so genuinely. In his pleasantly quiet way, he showed much respectful admiration of Mrs. Elgar.

"Now, isn't there a resemblance to Mr. Mallard?" asked Eleanor, when the visitor was gone.

"Just-just a little," admitted Cecily, with fastidiousness and an amused smile. "But Mr. Seaborne doesn't impress me as so original, so strong."

"Oh, that he certainly isn't," said Spence. "But acuter, and perhaps a finer feeling in several directions."

Miriam listened, and was tortured.

She had suffered all the evening from observing Cecily, whose powers of conversation and charms of manner made her bitterly envious. How far she herself was from this ideal of the instructed and socially trained woman! The presence of a stranger had banished Cecily's despondent mood, and put all her capacities in display. With a miserable sense of humiliation, Miriam compared her own insignificant utterances and that bright, often brilliant, talk which held the attention of every one. Beside Cecily, she was still indeed nothing but a school-girl, who with much labour was getting a smattering of common knowledge; for, though Cecily had no profound acquirements, the use she made of what she did know was always suggestive, intellectual, individual.

What wonder that Mallard brought out his drawings to show them to Cecily? There would be nothing commonplace in her remarks and admiration.

She felt herself a paltry pretender to those possibilities of modern womanhood which were open to Cecily from her birth. In the course of natural development, Cecily, whilst still a girl, threw for ever behind her all superstitions and harassing doubts; she was in the true sense "emancipated"-a word Edward Spence was accustomed to use jestingly. And this was Mallard's conception of the admirable in woman.

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